Friday, October 8, 2010

Tips for Terror - Advice for Running Dread and other Horror Games

Everyone always says GM'ing a good horror game is one of the hardest things to do. Are there difficulties and special considerations that need to be taken into account? Of course, but like any genre it just takes a litttle bit of prep, knowing the source material, and knowing what buttons to push in your players to make the whole thing click.

Here's a little secret: the first game I ever GM'ed (or even played) was Dread. I ran the very first Story, Beneath the Full Moon, for one of my friends, Chuck, Andrea, our little sister, and her boyfriend. It was safe to say that it was a safe place to mess up and experiment with this wholee role-playing thing... whatever it meant to us complete rookies at that time.

This post has a bit of a focus on hosting a game of Dread, but it's really a culmination of our experiences playing any games with horrific events. Given the post's lack of focus on any one system and the fact that I hate not having any pictures in our posts, I've decided to just tack on some movie posters from some of my favorite Lovecraftian horror movies for your visual pleasure. Some of them aren't even creepy: I just like 'em a lot. Keep Reading for the tips!

1. Whenever Possible, Mix Genres

This might seem a little counter-intuitive on it's face, but let's think about it: the best horror movies combine genres to make something original and memorable. Shaun of the Dead is one of the best examples of combining horror and comedy. Horror and comedy shouldn't work together, but they turn out to be incredibly powerful partners in more movies than I can name here. Do your best to find a real hook for your players - at least the first time they try a horror game - in what you know they already like.

Think about your average group of D&D players. They like fantasy, right? Years of playing in Gygaxian fantasy worlds have numbed role-players to the true horror potential of these settings. Giving your players something to latch on to but twisting it a bit towards the more horrific aspects of those familiar tropes will do a lot of your legwork for you. Clerics take out waves of undead zombies and skeletons at a time, right? Scale back the power of the player characters, don't allow divine characters, and have the game start with the group finding a half-eaten corpse of the local cleric of pelor just outside the village. Take your basic zombie movie and move forward from there. This is of course just an example. You have to take whatever your group's used to and combine it with your favorite horror story.

2. Less is More

This rule is good in two different aspects. The first is that, as the GM, the less you describe whatever horrible, terror-fueling ghoulie your players encounter, the more space your allow your players to fill in the gap with what scares them individually. Some people hate spiders while others hate snakes. While you could always describe the giant spider as walking on eight writhing snake-like legs, there's no way you can always account for every player's terror button (that part of them that, when pressed, causes psychological discomfort - but in a good way). The less specific you are about what the character encounters, the more room the player has to scare themselves. This vagueness also allows for players who have read the monster manual or equivalent forward and backwards to not know what they're facing. It puts them on an even footing with the more casual gamer and works to take back some of the mystery our over-saturated-with-monsters hobby used to have.

The second part of Less is More applies to the characters themselves. Yes, it is possible to put Superman in a horror setting, but unless the boogie man has a hunk of kryptonite (or the boogie man is magic based!), we don't tend to worry about Superman's chance for survival. The same goes for your player's characters. You shouldn't aim to artificially nerf the PC's, but instead you should look for ways to organically reduce the effectiveness of their strengths. In this sense, the less power the characters possess, the more they'll likey have. Don't believe me? Check out the most handicapped character anyone has ever played - and keep in mind that the player had a lot of fun playing him.

3. Rules Are Made To Be Broken

Most games suffer when the group needs to take a second to look up a rule they're not sure of, but horror games stop dead in their tracks when this happens. It's more important for horror than any other gaming genre to feel comfortable improvising the rules for something you don't know in order to keep the game going. Of course it's easier (in my experience) to feel comfortable improvising when you're just running a one-shot of something - and Dread's system is pretty much built on improvising - but it can work in campaigns as well.

There are always two important rules to improvising rules. Number one is to make sure you're consistent. If you decide something on the fly, make a quick note of it, and do your best to use that rule if the same situation would ever come up in your game with that group again. Your players will be fine with the fact that you made up a rule as long as they feel it's fair and that the things they'll be facing have to play by the same rules. Of course some creatures won't have to play by the rules - afterall most monsters are monsters because they break the laws of physics or society in one or more ways - but your players will understand this too. The second rule is that you have to think of how the end result of the rule is going to move the story forward. You're going to making a lot of one-time use rules on the fly if you're running a good, adaptable horror game, so make sure you think of how the rule is going to heighten the tension or provide a much-needed release for the group. But now I'm getting ahead of myself!

4. Pace Pace Pace!

You may be noticing a trend that I try to emulate the best horror movies when I'm running a horror game. This is not a happy coincidence. Movies are a universal language amongst us twenty- and thirty-somethings for storytelling, and I tend to lean on this fact heavily. You get to use a lot of short-hand when describing a scene that others will pick up on right away. Afterall, the only reason I know how an FBI agent holds his flashlight under his pistol is from watching movies and the X-Files.

This tip kind of encompasses everything else - it's the crux of what makes a good horror game. For Dread, you can really look at the Tower as a pacing mechanism all on it's own. As the GM, you control how often a player must pull a block to do something difficult (or even mildly challenging), but most other horror games don't have their own natural pacing mechanic (and now I have my first idea for an original horror game - I call dibs!) to help you out.

So what do I mean by pace? Let's look back to movies for a second. Anyone who has ever watched a horror documentary (or been on a rollercoaster really) knows that you have to go back and forth between times of high tension and times for players to breathe and absorb the weight of what's going on around them. You also must do this in your game. First, you don't want to be desensitizing your players against the horrors they face. Dracula with a slicked back head of hair and red-lined high-collared cape is not too scary anymore. We've seen countless sitcoms parodying this exact image in their (often great!) Halloween episodes. Bela Lugosi's Dracula was, in 1931 at least (and if you're in the right mood in 2010) pretty terrifying. You also want to give the players' nerves a break if you're doing a great job with upping the ante at regular intervals. You need to give the players time to breathe just they can see how deep a hole their characters have gotten themselves into.

5. If You Fail To Prepare, You Prepare For Failure

When it comes to preparing for a horror game, it's actually a bit different compared to most other genres. Horror, I've found, is the one genre that really benefits from the occasional physical prop to hand your players at a key moment in the story. In the original version of our Black Cod Island scenario, the players came across some pages torn out of a scientist's diary. This was going to be an integral part of the story and give the players some insight into what was going on on the island. I did my best to fancy up my writing and used a smaller type of lined paper. I of course crumpled each page up a few times and tore bits off, but there was one more finishing touch. I used red food coloring to make the notes look like splashes of blood were flung onto them. Note from the pro's: red food coloring bleeds awesomely on paper and I heartily endorse it's use in prop making! It was a great little thing that was both useful (had doctor's notes) and tangible in that they had to shuffle the papers and I didn't have to read it to them - they had to decipher the cursive half-covered in blood.

Apart from prop's, setting up the play area is key to making a fun horror game really shine. Play at night (not just in a room without windows), close the draps, shut off the lights, and provide your players with complete silence - no distracting radio or music on in the background. This is your opening act's setting. Once you get into things you can start to add multimedia pieces such as props (like above) or the creepy bit of music or voice recording. Chuck ran my favorite horror RPG experience ever the first time he ran Digging for a Dead God by John Wick. He shut out all light except for a lantern he used and little battery operated tea lights for each of the players. John had provided a fantastic jungle (and other... things) audio track that Chuck used throughout that just put everyone on edge. It was amazing, immersive, and incredibly easy to pull together. It's a horror game I'll never forget.

Most importantly, be inventive! I'm planning a game using a super-secret Men In Black like agency based on the SCP Foundation. It's going to be a Dread game in my mind, and I'm already planning (and creating!) audio files for each of the agency's subjects that the players will come across. It's something new, and it'll take a good bit of preparation time, but it should give the players a unique experience they can take with them after the game's long past - and isn't that why we really role-play in the first place?

What do you think about my tips? Crap? Awesome? Awesome Crap? Or maybe you think my taste in horror movies is terrible (in which case I think you're terrible)? Got any amazing horror gaming experiences you'd like to share? We'd love to hear from you, so please let us know! Leave a comment below and we can all learn from each other how to best to scare... each other.


  1. thanks so much for the great tips, I am running a one shot sci-fi dread campaign, and getting a quick refresh on the nuances from running my other non horror rpg session is getting me excited.

    one thing i like to foster with my gaming groups during tense situations including horror is finding opportunities for characters and their players to come to different 'right' solutions for the scenarios. when they can really jump in on the defense and get into the feel of their characters emotive state, it will often write itself, leaving me time to improvise the setting description and tactfully increase the stakes

  2. I decided to try out dread for the first time earlier this week, and have prepared one of the starter stories for my family to play (hopefully I can branch out and create my own scenarios if they enjoy this one). Since the scenario includes notes left by scientists on their work, I was super inspired by your tip of providing hard evidence, and will be writing up the notes and sprinkling one with a bit of red dye for that lived in feel. Hopefully I can pull off the suspense I need for this game to turn out well!


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